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2005-07-08

America’s Rail Security: Is the Government Doing Enough to Protect U.S. Transit Systems?

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A group of critics inside and outside of government are accusing the Bush administration of not focusing enough on protecting the country’s public transit systems. We speak with Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) who introduced the Safe TRAINS Act, the president of the American Public Transportation Association William Millar and Stephen Flynn, a retired U.S. Coast Guard commander and an expert on homeland security and border control. [includes rush transcript]

The bombings in London marked the second time in two years a train system in a major European city had been targeted. On March 11, 2004 in the Spanish of Madrid, in a series of bombings left 191 people and more than 1800 people injured. On Thursday Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff announced that the government had placed public transportation systems in the country’s cities on higher alert.

  • Michael Chertoff, Director of Homeland Security, July 7, 2005

In New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg vowed that the city’s trains were safe to ride.

  • Michael Bloomberg, Mayor of New York City

Thursday’s blasts in London raised new questions about security on the nation’s public transit systems. During the average work day, in this country, 14 million people ride public buses, trains and subways. In a single month the nation’s public transportation system carry more passengers than U.S. airlines carry in a year.

However a group of critics inside and outside of government are accusing the Bush administration of not focusing enough on protecting the country’s public transit systems.

Since the Sept. 11th attacks, the federal government has provided public transit systems 250 million dollars under the Transit Security Grant Program. The American Public Transportation Association has complained that this has been an inadequate amount. The trade group points out that over the same period the federal government has given the aviation industry over 15 billion dollars — more than 60 times as much money.

  • Congressmember Eleanor Holmes Norton, Democrat who represents the District of Columbia. She serves on the House Homeland Security Committee. Last year she introduced the Safe TRAINS Act.
  • William Millar, president of the American Public Transportation Association. The Association represents more than 1,500 public transit organizations around the world, including the London Underground.
  • Stephen Flynn, senior fellow for national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of "America the Vulnerable: How Our Government Is Failing to Protect Us from Terrorism." He served in the White House Military Office in the George W. Bush administration and as a director for global issues on the National Security Council staff during the Clinton administration.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: On Thursday, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff announced that the government has placed public transportation systems in the country on higher alert.

MICHAEL CHERTOFF: The intent of al Qaeda and its affiliated organizations to attack in Europe and in the United States has been well documented and continues to be reflected in intelligence reporting. We have already taken additional measures to secure transit systems since 9/11 and since the railway bombing in Madrid. At the direction of the President, we are working with the Department of Transportation, our other federal partners, state and local officials, and transportation authorities to take all necessary precautions and to increase the security of our transportation systems and the citizens who ride them. We have asked State and local leaders and transportation officials to increase their protective measures, including: Additional law enforcement police, bomb detecting canine teams, increased video surveillance, spot-testing in certain areas, added perimeter barriers, extra intrusion detection equipment, and increased numbers of inspection of trash receptacles and other storage areas.

JUAN GONZALEZ: That was Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff speaking on Thursday. In New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg vowed that the city’s trains were safe to ride.

MICHAEL BLOOMBERG: I know that New Yorkers are concerned that this type of attack could be replicated here in our city. But let me assure you, we are doing everything in our power to prevent that from happening.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Thursday’s blasts in London raised new questions about security in the nation’s public transit systems. During the average workday in this country, 14 million people ride public buses, trains and subways. In a single month, the nation’s public transportation system carries more passengers than U.S. airlines carry in a year. However, a group of critics inside and outside of government are accusing the Bush administration of not focusing enough on protecting the country’s public transit systems.

Since the September 11 attacks, the Federal Government has provided public transit systems $250 million under the Transit Security Grant Program. The American Public Transportation Association has complained that this has been an inadequate amount. The trade group points out that over the same period, the federal government has given the aviation industry over $15 billion, more than 60 times as much money.

We’re joined by Congressmember Eleanor Holmes Norton. She’s a Democrat who represents the District of Columbia. She serves on the House Homeland Security Committee. Last year, she introduced the Safe Trains Act. We’re also joined by William Millar, the President of the American Public Transportation Association, which represents more than 1,500 public transit organizations around the world, including the London underground, and we’re joined by Stephen Flynn. He’s a Senior Fellow for National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of America the Vulnerable: How Our Government is Failing to Protect Us From Terrorism. He served in the White House Military Office in the Bush administration and as a Director for Global Issues on the National Security Council staff during the Clinton administration. Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton from the District of Columbia, I’d like to start with you; your sense of the disparities, if they do exist, between government support for security for the aviation industry versus mass transit?

REP. ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON: Well, they’re quite outrageous. After the fact. And I’m on both the Homeland Security Committee and on the Aviation Subcommittee. After the fact, of course, we’ve done what we had to do, and upwards of $15 billion has gone into aviation security of one kind or the other, something approaching $400 million into public transportation security, and it ought to strike everybody as very strange that Mr. Chertoff, the new Homeland Security administrator, was from Washington giving a recipe of what public agencies should do. Trashcans and the rest, that tells you everything. It tells you that no one would ever do that today to airlines, because airlines know what to do, because there’s been some Congressional action and oversight, but there has been so little systematic action, so little money from Washington that here you have the Homeland Security Secretary literally going down a checklist of what public transportation operators should do. How pathetic four years after 9/11.

JUAN GONZALEZ: William Millar, President of the American Public Transportation Association, why? Why the disparity, and what’s behind it?

WILLIAM MILLAR: Well, I think the original reason, as the Congresswoman has said, everybody understood, we needed to secure the airline system, and I don’t think anybody begrudges the money that’s been spent on airline security, but our transportation system is made up of far more than that. We’re talking about public transportation today, but it’s also highways and bridges and the ports and the waterways and everything else, and it would seem to us that after nearly four years since 9/11, it’s time to begin to address that balance. 32 million times a day, Americans use public transportation. Less than 2 million times a day, Americans use the nation’s airline system. It seems to us that in a time of national security, as the President says we are in, national security issues such as this, that only the federal government has the resources to provide the kind of funding so that transit systems across the country can do the types of realistic things that are necessary to both make them safer, and frankly, make the millions of Americans who use it feel safer. Both are important.

JUAN GONZALEZ: But if you say you don’t begrudge the airlines, the help that they have gotten, clearly, they have been better capable of lobbying for that support than have the mass transit systems around the country, no?

WILLIAM MILLAR: Well, I don’t see it quite that way. I think everyone in the world watched 9/11 and the repeats of that, and the repeats of that on TV and heard it on the radio, and everybody realized the airlines system had to be made secure. Public transit is one of those public utilities that when it’s operating well, nobody notices. Nobody stands on the corner and says — gives it great praise. Then you have these occasional incidents, such as in Madrid, such as in London, where it gets momentary focus and then it’s back to business as usual.

The fact of the matter is many in the Congress do not use public transit. Everyone in the Congress does use the airline system, and so I think it’s more obvious to people in the Congress. But Congresswoman Holmes Norton and many others in the Congress have been calling for additional aid, and we’re very hopeful that her bill and other bills like it that are being talked about again will be reintroduced and we hope that this time around, now that we have two major examples in the world to look at, that more of the Congress and the administration will look favorably upon the need for additional aid this time around.

JUAN GONZALEZ: We’re also joined by Stephen Flynn, retired U.S. Coast Guard Commander, and an expert on Homeland Security and border control. Your perspective on this disparity between aviation security and mass transit security.

STEPHEN FLYNN: Well, it’s really unacceptable, but it really reflects two things; first, that the administration has made quite clear that they believe the federal government’s responsibility is primarily the war overseas and the policing of our border, and right in the President’s Homeland Security Strategy, which he put out a little over a year after 9/11, he says quite explicitly that when it comes to safeguarding critical infrastructures within our society, that the burden needs to be shared by local and state authorities, and quote, "there’s sufficient market incentive for the private sector to protect itself."

The fact that our transit systems are run at the local level, or state or regional, but primarily local level, and that the federal government has carved out this division of labor that says that when it comes to federal resources, it really is being put in the war on terror overseas, and states and locals need to fend for themselves, is clearly a challenge when so many states and localities are having a difficult time just keeping their transit system up and running, never mind adding rather expensive improvements.

The other side of the — the second issue is that there is this almost sense that it’s hopeless, that there’s nothing that can be done. They’re very open systems. There’s too many people. One can think about how we can police, do security at the airports, because you’re funneling people onto planes, controlled environment.

Here, I think we miss the point. One is that a lot of, while it’s impossible to protect a system 100% of the time, like the transit system, there’s a lot that we can do in terms of raising the awareness both in terms of training of the transit operators, as well as the general public, which means that our politicians need to do a little less of 'everything that can be done is being done, so just go about life as normal,' and a little more talking about the limits of what they can do and what everybody else needs to contribute.

The other side is very much about response, about being able, given that these accidents will happen, having the exercises so that you can evacuate people, you can get the system up and running quickly. Here I think the Brits deserve a lot of praise both in their ability to respond to this well, and also in terms of managing a lot of the public information that’s coming out. And that’s the kind of investments that we need to make. Not huge sums of money in many cases, but it does require resources, and the federal government has to exercise much more leadership than it’s been willing to exercise to date.

JUAN GONZALEZ: But transit systems obviously around the country are all cutting costs because so many of them are publicly funded and depend on taxpayer revenues, so that you have a situation, for instance, in New York City, where they’re cutting — they’re beginning to have trains with no conductors for the first time, just with the trainmen. So that the, it would seem that in that situation, the level of at least being able to respond to an immediate emergency would grow even less than currently exists.

STEPHEN FLYNN: Well, I think that’s — that that’s certainly the case is that the trends are not going in the right direction, overall, while certainly some efficiencies are always going to be what we work our way through. But the fact is we don’t recognize these things as critical to our way of life and our quality of life. Major cities like Washington D.C., and New York just simply cannot function without mass transit working. So, it’s not only that — you know, there actually are ways if you went up to sport events or something else, where you can kill more people, but what we’re seeing with al Qaeda and its imitator organizations are geared to do, is to cause economic and societal disruption by going after things we really, really depend upon. And our mass transit system, largely unobserved because they’re almost always working well for those who use it, but the fact is they are the lifeblood of our major cities and our major cities are a lifeblood of our economy. So American citizens really have got to start to make an investment in safeguarding these kinds of facilities. And frankly, they deserve investment even if there wasn’t a terrorist threat because of their economic role.

REP. ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON: I don’t think when we talk — we ought to understand what we’re talking about, an investment, and the difference between mass public transportation and aviation. And we’re really not — there are two ways to look at this. There needs to be developed smart security for mass transportation. We haven’t begun that process.

Meanwhile, my bill would begin with a very small amount of money, you know, when you compare it to the $15 billion that aviation has got. $3.5 billion. And what would that be used for? It would be grants where public transportation systems — that means people who operate buses, ferries, not just subways, rail, light rail, could apply for grants to do the obvious, to get dogs, to have ventilation equipment, so that if you are underground people don’t simply suffocate when a bomb goes off, perhaps even in one car. These are not your aviation-type costly approaches.

What I was able to get into the Homeland Security authorization is equally primitive: a national plan for public outreach and awareness. Here we have the television telling people, 'hey, look around you, make sure that if you see anything suspicious, you report it.' We don’t tell public transportation systems and —- excuse me, there’s not systematic direction from Washington or security expertise from Washington given across the board to transportation systems of all kinds and all varieties -—

JUAN GONZALEZ: Representative Norton, I’m sorry, I am going to have to cut you off at that point because we’re out of time for this segment. But I’d like to thank you all, Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton, Congresswoman from the District of Columbia; William Millar, President of the American Public Transportation Association; and Stephen Flynn, a retired U.S. Coast Guard Commander and expert on Homeland Security for being with us and we’ll be continuing to follow this issue in other editions of Democracy Now!

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